When Technology Limits 911 Capabilities

Award Winner: 2008 First-place local government story in Division E for MDDC Press Association

Crossing the line on 911 calls? | The Eldersburg Eagle

Calls sent to Howard, then back to Carroll

By Charles Schelle, cschelle@patuxent.com

Eldersburg Eagle, June 25, 2008

Beverly Burns of Sykesville said she can still hear the scream of a 39-year-old Baltimore Gas and Electric worker who was electrocuted last week outside her home.

Unsure of what those screams meant, Burns picked up her cell phone at about 2:45 a.m. Wednesday, June 18, in her home on Spout Hill Road and dialed 911.

When the dispatcher answered, though, it was Howard County’s 911 center. That center transferred Burns to Carroll County’s 911 center and sent help to the scene.

“I’ve been sitting here for two days wondering if we weren’t routed through Howard County, could those extra minutes made a difference for that man?” she said Friday in a call to The Eagle.

The BGE worker died of cardiac arrest en route to University of Maryland Shock Trauma, according to a press release from the Sykesville Police Department. He was not identified in the release.

Scott Campbell, Carroll County Department of Public Safety administrator, said he could not give a definitive answer, but from what he was told about the situation, the system worked as it is supposed to, and he said there’s no issue with AT&T, Burns’ carrier.

Communication companies typically place three 120-degree panel antennas to route calls, Campbell said. Those antennas receive 911 calls in a full circle, he added.

“At least one of its towers are pointing toward Howard County and vice versa,” he said.

Campbell gives Mount Airy as the best example of the case given that it is split among Carroll, Frederick, Howard and Montgomery counties where cell phone users dialing 911 might get a call center from either of those counties – depending on where they are standing, he said.

When a caller is routed to a neighboring jurisdiction, dispatchers have specific guidelines and procedures of what to do, he said. Callers can help by stating clearly where they are, he said.

“I’m very happy to hear the process worked the exact way it’s suppose to,” he said. “It’s a very brief transfer process.”

Terrible instance

The 911 center received numerous calls about the incident, Campbell added. According to a press release by the Sykesville Police Department, the power failed at 2:36 a.m., and the worker was pronounced dead at 4:37 a.m.

Additional antennas to pick up signals in Sykesville to be routed to the Carroll County 911 center might not change the parameters of how calls are routed, Campbell said.

Still, he said he would follow-up on the Burns’ concern.

“We will, in fact, determine what AT&T sites are in the area,” he said. However, Campbell stresses that the situation is not unique to AT&T. It’s a wireless communications issue, he said.

The county does not have a 10-digit phone number to use for emergency calls to directly reach the Carroll County 911 center, Campbell said. He discourages calling the Department of Public Safety’s business lines, too, because of the tools that workers can use in the 911 system.

“Truthfully, to not use 911 would be usurping all of the 911-affiliated benefits of calling 911,” he said. “We would not be encouraging that at all.”

Burns lives above the sub-station on Spout Hill Road near Springfield Avenue and wanted to run outside and help the worker, whom she said she could hear crying for help. Her husband stopped her from proceeding for her own safety, she said, not knowing what exactly happened.

“I like to send my condolences for the family,” she said. “I was just scared for my own safety.”

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